New York frontline workers claim they were fired for having COVID-19

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Maria Hernández is a proud woman. Now 57, she escaped war-torn El Salvador 27 years ago and arrived in the United States. A single mother of seven, life here wasn’t much of a dream, but she could make a living and her family could live in the relative safety of Long Island. For the past 25 years, his income has come from a job with FDR Services, a company that cleans contaminated linens from New York City hospitals and nursing homes, for $ 13.33 an hour.On April 9, the stability provided by employment suddenly disappeared. Hernández had returned to work after sick leave with a suspected case of Covid-19 and was abruptly fired with little explanation. Hernández could not imagine that she would be in such a situation during a pandemic.

“Why are they taking advantage of what is happening now when they should be protecting us?” she asked, through tears, in an interview with Documented.

Hernández first developed symptoms compatible with the coronavirus in late March. Not the type to complain, she didn’t think much about it. But, when his colleagues also began to describe similar symptoms and started calling in sick like a line of collapsing dominoes, Hernández decided it was time to seek medical help. She was unable to take a coronavirus test, but after learning she worked in a warehouse, her doctor deemed her symptoms compatible with the virus and ordered her not to work until April 9. Shortly thereafter, on March 28, the Nassau County Department of Health issued Hernández an official quarantine order for at least 14 days. According to Hernández, FDR refused to recognize his order, nor did they grant him his sick leave paid by Covid-19 in New York state.

“The company did something wrong,” she said. “It’s not fair, it’s not just what they did to me. ”

Hernández was not alone: ​​five other FDR employees were also fired after returning from sick leave – all on quarantine orders from Nassau County.

Also read: Immigrant workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis

As the coronavirus pandemic reached terrifying heights in New York City, residents leaned out the window at 7 p.m. every night to applaud healthcare workers. Yet workers like those at FDR, who supported the health sector, had to grapple with harsh working conditions without warning. Their stories are like those of many warehouse workers amid the coronavirus pandemic who perform essential duties, working closely, often for paltry wages. As the pandemic spread, many workers in such conditions became ill and some died from illnesses linked to Covid-19. At FDR, workers who followed orders from doctors and health officials to keep their colleagues safe say they were subsequently fired.

Maria hernandez

The day before Hernández’s return to work, Blanca Landaverde returned to her 9-month job at FDR after completing her own county-mandated quarantine. The next day, Landaverde found out that his job was also being terminated. She argued with her employer that her dismissal was illegal because she had a valid medical note, but management told her it was not valid, according to Landaverde. Landaverde and her union said the company fired her for not properly calling for work. “The moment they told me I had been fired, I started crying on the spot,” Landaverde said. “I have two children to feed.”

Documents reviewed by Documented show that, like Hernández and Landaverde, the other four employees fired by FDR also received quarantine orders from the Nassau County Department of Health. Two other workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the FDR amid efforts to secure concessions in a labor dispute, described being abruptly fired upon returning to work after ordering the county to be quarantined.

FDR declined to comment for this article, but in a letter to its customers, obtained by Documented, FDR claimed the layoffs were unrelated to the pandemic and suggested that the Nassau County orders were fraudulent. “These employees have NOT been fired for COVID-related issues,” the letter said. “Contrary to recent media coverage, they were fired for NOT following absence from work policies. In addition, they provided fraudulent documents or no documents to justify their absenteeism. ”

The union representing FDR workers believes workers are being punished for choosing their health over their job and is in talks with the company to rehire the workers. “The company feels they can have conversations and negotiations about this, but it’s something that can’t be negotiated,” said Albert Arroyo, a group manager who covers workers at the laundry, the Workers United, which is under the aegis of SEIU. “These workers did the right thing. Not only for their family and their community, but also for their colleagues in general. ”

Also read: Latinos in New York have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Why?

Along with their union, a host of other union activists and elected officials demonstrated their support for the dismissed workers and condemned FDR’s actions. “It is shameful and illegal to fire workers because they are sick with COVID-19,” New York State Senator Kevin Thomas, whose district includes the installation of FDR, said in a statement. emailed to Documented. “No employee should ever feel pressured by their employer to put themselves, family and colleagues at risk, especially during a pandemic. I fully support the workers wrongly dismissed by FDR Services. ”

In response to the layoffs, SEIU filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Labor, which is currently investigating the matter.

“Our top priority is to protect the rights, health and safety of New Yorkers – and as regions move through the data-driven phased reopening process, we will continue to ensure that employers keep their lives safe. their workers and adhere to all appropriate health regulations, ”said Deanna Cohen, deputy director of communications for the state Department of Labor, in an emailed statement. “We are aware of this situation and it is under active investigation.”

Blanca Landaverde

SEIU officials said the New York State Attorney General’s office was investigating FDR, although the attorney’s office declined to comment for the story.

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Located in the coastal town of Hempstead, Long Island, FDR employs between 150 and 200 workers at its large industrial facility. Many of their employees are women and are from Central America. The company services linen for 17 hospitals, including four in Queens, as well as a number of nursing homes in the New York metro area. The customer list meant that FDR workers frequently came into contact with materials from communities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. According to FDR, 52 employees called due to symptoms related to the coronavirus in a single day.

Landaverde and other workers at the facility said conditions at FDR were ripe for the pandemic to spread. Much of the facility was extremely hot and suffered from poor ventilation, they said. Even though she was working with soiled hospital linen, Landaverde claimed so. during her employment with FDR, she never received a single piece of safety equipment such as masks or gloves. “The company didn’t provide that,” she said, of the masks and gloves. “The workers brought it from outside. Sometimes if I had enough money I would buy my things and bring them, but sometimes I didn’t have enough money and I didn’t bring them.

With so many workers calling Arroyo, the union official suspects the layoffs were a management move to discourage other workers from calling in sick. “I could only guess that probably because it’s a way of intimidating these workers and the others who work inside, that if you get sick it will happen to you too, so better show up for work”, Arroyo said.

John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which operates under the aegis of the AFL-CIO, believes that FDR’s actions as well as the current conditions that workers endure are consistent with their history of violations of the law. health and work. As of August 2019, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined FDR $ 17,390 for five serious safety violations that could result in death or serious injury. The investigation was opened after workers complained that the company had failed to provide workers handling soiled hospital linen with hepatitis B vaccines. “They are putting their health at risk to avoid cross-contamination of laundry in an effort to protect patients and healthcare workers, ”Durso said. “Unfortunately, we know that FDR Services has a proven track record among the worst. This pandemic was no different. ”

FDR receives thousands of dollars in tax relief from the Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency. The deal, first concluded in 2018, included reducing the company’s taxes from $ 409,000 to $ 280,000 per year for the first three years of the 10-year agreement. In return, FDR has promised to keep at least 250 jobs.

Asked by Documented if he would reassess the deal in light of the current labor dispute, Frederick Parola, executive director and CEO of the Town of Hempstead Industrial Development Agency said he did not know enough about the situation, but added that “IDA does not get involved in labor disputes. ”

Negotiations are currently underway between the SEIU and the company. Arroyo, for his part, is exhausted from the whole process, but determined to hold on. “The only thing we ask them to do is do the right thing of us,” he said. “You just have to follow the law, follow the guidelines and you should be fine. We are not asking for anything. ”

For workers like Hernández and Landaverde, times have been tough. Both struggle to pay their rent or keep food on the table. Sleepless nights have become commonplace. Yet they are determined to fight back, publicly if need be. “I’ll talk,” Landaverde said, “to tell the truth over and over again until I can work. “
Also read: Nonprofits supporting immigrants suffer from state budget cuts

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